CHARLOTTE - Brian Burns nearly made some game-changing plays in the first two weeks of his second season. But that wasn't good enough for the Panthers, and the defensive end knew it wouldn't be good enough heading to Los Angeles in Week 3.
"I'll tell you, nobody will ever understand the struggles of getting close to the quarterback besides D-ends and D-tackles," Burns said with a laugh following Carolina's 21-16 win over the Chargers.
After leaving losses against the Raiders and Buccaneers without a single sack, the Panthers got two on the Chargers' first two drives. First, Marquis Haynes got home to force a punt. Then, Burns strip-sacked rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. That turned into one of Carolina's four takeaways, three of which came in the first half.
While the Panthers' defense was a key figure in the club's first win of the season, the unit was far from perfect, allowing 436 yards, 26 first downs, and 10-of-15 third-down conversions. But its three first-half takeaways allowed the visitors to build a somewhat comfortable lead.
The final takeaway came at the end of the game when defensive lineman Efe Obada fell on wide receiver Keenan Allen's failed hook-and-ladder pitch on a well-designed and dangerous play to running back Austin Ekeler.
"I felt relief," head coach Matt Rhule said with a laugh after collecting his first win. "I thought today was the best example we've had of playing as a team - guys having each other's back, guys picking each other up."
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Entering Week 3 with no sacks and one quarterback hit, the Panthers knew that had to change. Rookie quarterbacks are notoriously susceptible to making mistakes when they face heavy pressure.
"Honestly, guys came to rush. That's how I see it," Burns said. "Going into this week, the preparation was get after the quarterback, perfect our moves."
Carolina's defense set that tone from Los Angeles' first drive. On third-and-10, Haynes broke through the dam to sack Herbert, snapping the Panthers' pass-rushing slump. Armed with a 3-0 lead on the second defensive possession, Burns strip-sacked Herbert by punching the ball out as he was preparing to throw. Linebacker Tahir Whitehead recovered the loose ball, and Carolina took over at the Chargers' 35-yard line.
"My mindset on that strip-sack was run, but Shaq Thompson yelled behind me, 'Pass, pass!' ... And I pinned my ears back, and I went," Burns said. "I give all credit to him."
The Panthers' rush was disruptive throughout the contest, finishing with the pair of sacks and eight quarterback hits.
"We ran some more pressures. We're putting a little bit more in each week," Rhule said. "It wasn't perfect, but I thought the pressure allowed us to be in the game."
Thompson picked up the Panthers' second takeaway of the first half by punching the ball out of running back Joshua Kelley's arms and recovering the fumble. Cornerback Donte Jackson recorded the third by stepping in front of a pass intended for Allen during Los Angeles' two-minute drill.
"Last week, Donte picks a pass off and goes out of bounds. This week he runs all the way down there (to the Chargers' 8-yard line)," Rhule said. "So, proud that they made the plays that we had to make."
The Panthers scored 12 points off those takeaways with a pair of field goals and a touchdown, though kicker Joey Slye's extra point was blocked. And the touchdown would not have happened if the Chargers hadn't lined up over the center on Slye's field goal attempt late in the second quarter. The penalty resulted in a first down, which turned into Mike Davis' 13-yard touchdown reception.
Carolina started three possessions in L.A. territory and had an average drive start of their own 38-yard line but finished 1-of-6 in red zone efficiency.
"We want to turn those turnovers into seven points instead of field goals," Bridgewater said. "But the defense, they created those turnovers. They created the energy. We just fed off those guys."
There's plenty to correct, and Carolina will start getting to it on Monday. But for a team that entered the week struggling mightily to generate any pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the Panthers turned a corner to get their first win.